Collaboration or conflict (slight return)

Jim Wilson, writing in QuakerQuaker, takes up Madeline Schaefer’s blog post:

First, I appreciate the willingness to both name and discuss the division between the Mystics and the Activists in the Quaker Community of our day.  It is an issue that is close to me, as I think of myself as a mystic and often feel, to varying degrees, alienated from the activist focus of so many Quakers individuals and Quaker organizations.

My take on this is that contemporary Quaker activism is a part of the largely political and activist focus that contemporary American religion is gripped by at this time.  In other words, I see Quaker activism as the same as evangelical activism, or the activism of many Catholics, for various causes, for various legislative platforms, and for various candidates.

He goes on to write:

The greatest difficulty I have with your [Schaefer’s] post is that your view is that mysticism is an adjunct to effective activism rather than an end in itself.  For example, you wrote;

“To experience the Spirit is to experience a call to action and to act with the faith that the Light will be revealed—through deep listening—after each step is taken.”

You see, that is not how I experience the Spirit.  I don’t experience the Spirit as a ‘call to action’.  And this is the divide between the mystic and the activist.  The activist views contemplation, gathered silence, dwelling in the light, as tools for a more effective activism.  In this way these prayerful engagements are hijacked by the activist and are transformed into means rather than ends; they become tools for the activist in the same way that making a poster, or putting up a web-page are tools for effective activism.

What the activist does not comprehend about the mystic is that, for the mystic, interior prayer, gathered silence, is the leading, is the purpose, and is sufficient unto itself.  The mystic does not view these engagements as tools, or add-ons, for a political purpose.

Again, I would urge you to read the post for yourself. It highlights for me the difficulty in expressing the deep need for the mystical encounter of the ‘pray-er’ with God, with the Ground of Being, and for the love (inexplicable but real, David Jones’ “actually loved and known”) inherent in that Ground.

It is easy to be caught on the back foot by the activists – after all, it’s what they do – and find oneself defensively trying to justify mysticism for its practical benefits. It’s also far too easy to find oneself attributing magical properties to contemplative prayer, or else bending over far too far backwards to avoid doing so. Wilson unforgettably goes on to say:

From the activist perspective, this is inadequate.  As Howard Brinton wrote in his ‘Introduction’ to the book ‘A Guide to True Peace’, “This solution [of interior prayer] will seem too simple to intellectuals and too inadequate to activists, the two groups that dominate our age.”  This is because the activist is always outward oriented and wants to see results ‘in the real world’.  In contrast, the mystic finds the realm of interior silence to be as real, or more real, than what is found by focusing outward.  In the inward turning the mystic finds a true home.

For the activist this is to ignore the suffering and injustices in the world.  But for the mystic there is the experience, which grows over time, that the silence and stillness found by turning inward is a blessing to the whole world, a blessing which does not give rise to strife and contention.  Because this blessing is not palpable or measurable in material terms, the activist tends to dismiss this.  Personally, though, I have come to comprehend that the turning inward of the mystic is the most that I can do for other people.  Not that I have that particular motivation for turning inward.  Rather, that blessing is a consequence of the grace that such turning opens to.

Blessing, grace – these are indeed words “not palpable or measurable in material terms”. Yet they are real – perhaps in the end more real, and of greater consequence, than results “in the real world”.

As Alfred Lord Tennyson once wrote:

More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of…
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God…

Morte d’Arthur

Flowery, poetic language, of no use to a world of muck and brass? Or prophetic, in the true meaning of the word?

2 thoughts on “Collaboration or conflict (slight return)

  1. Ona

    I think this gets closer to the truth. Also to consider that the Body of Christ has many parts, and each has its role. We *need* the contemplatives, the activists, the teachers, the artists, the musicians, the mothers and fathers, the cooks, the taxi drivers, the students. Everyone is contributing according to their own calling, skills and abilities. If you think of us more like a bee hive than a bunch of individuals, we are all playing roles which contribute to the life of the whole.

  2. Pingback: Head over heels in the surf… | Silent Assemblies

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